Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 12, 2016

Delight And Despair In Pursuit Of The Cup

Three weeks ago, when the Stanley Cup playoffs were just getting started, On Sports and Life pointed to early signs that the winds of change were blowing through hockey’s postseason. The two teams that had won five of the last six Cups were on the verge of first round elimination to a pair of franchises that had known only playoff heartbreak. Meanwhile the Washington Capitals, another squad with memories of postseason hockey more bitter than fond, looked capable of overcoming the so-called jinx of winning the Presidents’ Cup for posting the NHL’s best regular season record.

Sports fans know the inherent risk of predicting outcomes based on a small sample size. Six weeks into the baseball season fans of the Washington Nationals are positively jubilant about last winter’s signing of free agent second baseman Daniel Murphy. The 31-year old was signed for his bat far more than his glove, but his fielding percentage to date is ten points above his career average and he ranks second in the NL among qualified second baseman in defensive WAR. Meanwhile all he’s doing at the plate is leading the league with a .409 average. The Murphy signing may indeed work out very well for the Nats, but the Great Game’s season is six months long, not six weeks. Odds are Murphy will boot a few balls as spring turns to summer; and it’s virtually certain that come late September there won’t be any headlines proclaiming him the new Ted Williams.

So with the sixteen original participants in NHL playoffs almost down to the final four, it wouldn’t be surprising if all the upstarts had been vanquished and only familiar names remained. It’s still possible that when Lord Stanley’s battered old trophy is paraded around an arena in triumph sometime next month the players lifting it above their heads will be wearing Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys. At this point the Pens are the closest thing to a predictable participant in these playoffs, having won three championship in all and claiming their most recent trophy in 2009. Since that time NHL fans have had the annual exchange of the Cup between Chicago and Los Angeles, with only Boston’s 2011 title interrupting the dominance of the Blackhawks and Kings.

Yet there is no doubt that the upstarts are going to have plenty to say about the outcome of these playoffs, all the way to the final horn. As this is being written on Thursday the identity of the fourth and final team to make it through to the Conference Finals is not yet known. The winner of Game 7 between the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators will be Friday morning’s hockey headline. But with that winner slated to play the St. Louis Blues, fans already know that this year, the Western Conference finalist will be a team seeking the first Cup in franchise history.

Not only have the remaining Western Conference playoff contenders never claimed the Cup, none of the three teams has ever come close. Neither the Sharks nor the Predators have ever played in the Finals since joining the league. That’s twenty-three seasons for San Jose and sixteen for Nashville. The Blues made the Finals each of their first three seasons but haven’t been back since. That fast start might sound incredible, but when the NHL first expanded from the Original Six to twelve teams prior to the 1967-68 campaign, all the expansion teams were placed in what was then called the Western Division, with the league’s original members comprising the Eastern Division.

In that first season all of the new squads in the West finished with losing records. Their play improved the next two years, with St. Louis leading the West during both regular seasons. But the Blues’ record in 1968-69 would have placed them just fourth in the East, and a year later their points total wouldn’t have been good enough to claim a spot in the playoffs had they been in the older and far better division. Predictably St. Louis was swept four games to none in each of those three Finals, twice by the Canadiens and once by the Bruins.

At the very least this season will see the end of a lengthy Finals drought for the Blues, Predators or Sharks; and quite possibly a maiden Stanley Cup for one of three long-suffering groups of fans. Even if the Western Conference representative ultimately doesn’t win the Cup, if the team so much as wins a game in the Finals it will make franchise history. Fair to say that the winds of change are still blowing in these playoffs.

Except of course in Washington, where another Capitals season has ended like so many others, in disappointment and doubt. Like the Blues, Sharks and Predators, the Caps are one of the twelve current NHL franchises that have never won the Stanley Cup. With the second round loss in six games to Pittsburgh the drought now stretches to forty-one seasons. Only once, in 1998, did the Capitals make it through to the Finals. Once there they met the same fate as the Blues, swept in four games.

That history was supposed to change eleven seasons ago, when Alex Ovechkin first donned a Capitals sweater. Throughout his NHL career the speedy Russian winger with the lightning shot has compiled a lengthy highlight reel of personal achievements. He is Steph Curry on skates, making seemingly impossible shots look routine. Awards have naturally followed, including Rookie of the Year, three MVP awards, and six Maurice Richard Trophies for most goals scored, including the last four seasons in a row.

But in that time the Capitals have never made it past the second round of the playoffs. Five times their season has ended there, as it did so suddenly Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, when the Penguins’ Nick Bonino tapped in a rebound at 6:32 of overtime. The three other times that Ovechkin’s Capitals have made the playoffs they were eliminated in the first round.

Because of his transcendent ability and especially now that he is the team captain, it’s easy to single out Ovechkin for Washington’s playoff failures. But this year he tallied five points in the first round win over the Flyers, and added seven more in the Pittsburgh series. Two of those points came on assists Tuesday night as he helped his team storm back from a 3-0 deficit to force the overtime period. For his career Ovechkin has eighty-two points in eighty-four playoff games. The Caps exit isn’t Ovie’s fault, but a bitter reminder that success over an 82-game regular season doesn’t automatically translate to victory in the short series that comprise the playoffs.

Washington’s loss tells all hockey fans what they should already know; namely that in the playoffs, where every sample size is small, anything can happen. Fans of the St. Louis Blues and whichever team they face next will surely know that’s true. As for sports fans in Washington, well they can still cheer for Daniel Murphy, and Max Scherzer’s twenty strikeouts, and that kid with the funny hair. His name’s Harper, and he’s shown some promise.

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